Butter soaked popcorn, dark packed theaters and noisy teenagers kicking the back of your seat are the thoughts on many people’s minds when it comes to the cinema experience. It’s little wonder that the older one gets, the more appealing the idea of watching movies at a home theater gets. But Beirut’s cinema owners are trying to provide a more refined and attractive movie watching experience — at least for those who can afford it.

Recently, cinema operators including Grand Cinemas and Cinemall have adopted the concept of VIP theaters to provide a more deluxe experience for the wealthier — and so inclined — film goers. For $30, you get a large seat, an alcoholic drink and something to eat (caviar and smoked salmon canapés in Grand Cinemas, nachos and popcorn in Cinemall). Yet you are essentially queuing in the same lines and having to visit the same over-crowded theater lobby as all the rest of the customers. Many, indeed, have concluded that they are somehow being cheated out of their money.

But Empire cinema in the Sodeco area of Beirut seems to have eliminated some of the problems faced by VIP theaters by creating a luxury cinema venue, and not merely a luxury theater.

Planning to open its doors in mid March, the Empire Premiere venue will have a lobby similar to that of a hotel, equipped with comfortable sofas, a book library, and a wine bar. Customers will have the option of the usual concession stand, which will offer gourmet popcorn featuring a flavor of the week, as well as the the option of something more exquisite catered by Le Sushi Bar — Japanese dishes will be especially prepared in a way that’s suitable to watching in a cinema.

The six theaters themselves, which once housed 180 seats each, will now have only 30 seats each in order to create a more comfortable homelike setting. Each lazy boy seat comes with a side table and lamp as well as a blanket and pillow for the attendee’s comfort. Films will play every half hour so there is no need to worry about the time when planning to catch a movie. The whole experience will cost $20 a ticket, food and beverages excluded.

Gino Haddad, owner of Empire Theaters, believes the Premiere project could only be profitable in the Sodeco theater and attributes this primarily to the catchment area it is in: in proximity to Downtown, Ashrafieh and Hazmieh, the venue is ideally placed to attract Haddad’s targeted customers who are in the upper class aged from 30 to 60 years old.

Haddad says he first got the idea to create such a venue when his team’s research showed that cinemas in general are losing clients between the ages of 30 and 60 who are disenchanted with the whole “cinema in malls” experience currently dominated by teenagers. Despite the increasing numbers of cinema outlets — in some cases within months of each other — it appeared there were no venues that catered to that age group. Besides, according to Haddad, since Empire is in the process of constructing a fourteen-screen project in Downtown Beirut, it was important that they create a different concept in the Sodeco outlet, so as not to cannibalize themselves.

With renovations costing $1.5 million, the Sodeco theater targets upper class professionals who would appreciate such a venue, and those under 18 years of age will not be permitted. Empire looks to make profits in ways other than individual ticket sales. Theaters can be rented for corporate events and private showings for live broadcast events, making the venue even more attractive — especially during football season. Revenues through luxury advertising will be another moneymaker  as it would create a niche market for advertisers, gathering their potential clients in one place — Aishti and Lotus have already confirmed their interest.  

In the era of DVDs and home theaters, cinema operators have to be creative in coming up with experiences to compete with the comfort of one’s homes. With Empire Sodeco, Haddad believes his plan provides his audience with exactly that experience.


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